A chemotherapy (chemo) port is a small device implanted just under the skin in the chest. It’s usually placed on the right side, near a major vein called the vena cava, and is used to administer chemotherapy drugs to treat cancer.
The port may also be used to deliver other fluids or for drawing blood for lab tests, as it’s connected to a vein with a thin, flexible catheter. When it’s time to administer medication or take blood, a needle is inserted through the skin into the port.
Having a chemo port implanted is an alternative to having cancer drugs administered with an intravenous (IV) catheter, which must be inserted into a vein each time you have chemotherapy.
While you can have a chemo port in place for weeks, months, or even years, the device can make sleeping difficult, as it protrudes slightly under the skin.
There are strategies, however, that will help you sleep comfortably with a chemo port. These include adjusting your sleep position and choosing a pillow and mattress to suit your needs.
As you get used to having the port, over-the-counter pain relievers may be helpful. Most people learn to overcome sleep problems with time.
However, with some adjustments to your sleep routine and bedding, you may be able to overcome issues arising from your chemo port.
Sleep on your back
A chemo port creates a little bump under the skin, which may be uncomfortable for some people trying to sleep face down or even on the side with the port.
Instead, the best option may be to sleep on your back so that there’s no pressure on the port. You may also find comfort sleeping on your left side, again taking pressure off the affected area of your chest.
Keep in mind that in the first few days or weeks after the port is implanted, the area around the site will be tender and sore, no matter what position you’re in. This discomfort will ease in time.
You may even be able to adjust to sleeping on your stomach or side, but that could take more time.
Prop your body with pillows
Surrounding yourself with pillows while you sleep may also help keep you in one comfortable position during the night. Tossing and turning may irritate the tissue and muscle around the port and cause you to awaken.
You can prop yourself up with standard pillows or try a body pillow or even a maternity pillow that provides support all around you.
Wear loose-fitting sleep clothes
Anything tight against your skin could irritate the port site, so choose loose-fitting and soft sleep clothes.
You’ll also want to make sure that you don’t get too warm, as that can interfere with a good night’s sleep. Experimenting with the right combination of sleep clothes, bedding, and overnight temperature may help you find the right mix.
Choose the right mattress and pillow
Use a pillow that doesn’t put strain on your neck and a mattress that doesn’t hurt your back. A mattress shouldn’t feel too soft or feel like it offers no support.
Ideally, a mattress should support all the natural curves of your body, particularly your back. Your pillow should also support the natural curve of your neck and be able to keep your neck, chest, and lower back in alignment.
Plan on replacing your pillow yearly and your mattress every 6 to 8 years.
OTC pain relievers
Mild pain brought on by the cancer itself or having an implant can often be eased by over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) and naproxen (Aleve).
Improve your sleep hygiene
Anything you can do to improve your sleep hygiene — the environment you sleep in and your bedtime routine — will help you get a good night’s rest. Some strategies include:
- sleeping in a dark, cool bedroom
- avoiding screens an hour or more before trying to sleep
- avoiding alcohol within 2 hours of bedtime and caffeine in the afternoon or evening
- taking a bath or shower to relax you prior to bedtime
- getting out of bed and moving to a quiet place to read or relax if you can’t fall asleep within 20 to 30 minutes
Everyone’s experience with a chemo port is different. Some people may have little to no trouble sleeping, while others may struggle finding a comfortable, restful position.
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If you can find a comfortable mattress and pillow as well as arrange a body pillow or other pillow support network around you, sleep disruptions related to your port should also ease within several weeks.
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Sleeping comfortably with a port isn’t the only challenge with these implantable devices. Wearing a seatbelt as a passenger in a vehicle can be uncomfortable, as the strap comes right across the chest where the port is often located. These little pillows push the seatbelt away from the port.
You can also try lying down with one to see whether it provides support as you try to sleep on your chest or on your side.
A chemo port is a relatively low-maintenance device, but there are a few things to keep in mind once it’s implanted.
Have the port lines flushed out once a month or so if the port hasn’t been used to deliver medication or provide blood for lab tests. Cleaning the lines should be done at the end of each session, but if you’re going weeks or months in between appointments, you should schedule a cleaning to avoid infection or other complication.
Contact your doctor’s office if you notice any changes, such as pain or redness around the port site. It could be a sign of infection or irritated tissue.
Several days after the port is implanted, you may exercise, work, play, and engage in most of your normal activities as your health and energy levels allow.
Showering and swimming won’t bother the port. If you have any questions about an activity, call your doctor’s office and speak with your physician or a nurse.
Avoid contact sports, such as football or rugby, as long as the port is in place.
Don’t do any heavy lifting for the first few days after the port has been implanted.
It will take a few weeks to adjust to sleeping with a chemo port. However, if you’re unable to adjust or the device is uncomfortable during the day, tell your doctor.
They may recommend other treatment options. Many people choose an IV for chemotherapy and have no problems with that approach.
Chemotherapy is a standard treatment for many types of cancer. You may go through several weeks or months of chemo, or possibly longer. This depends on the progression of the disease and how your body responds to treatment.
If your doctor believes that you may require an extended period of time to complete chemotherapy, ask whether an implanted chemo port makes sense. If the number of chemo sessions could be limited, then you may prefer IV delivery.
Chemotherapy is a highly individualized treatment, meaning that your experience with the medications may be much different than someone else’s experience — even if your cancer profiles are similar.
A chemo port may make sense if chemotherapy is expected to be a long process with many sessions in store. It reduces the health complications associated with IV injections, but it does require some monthly maintenance and an adjustment period to get used to the implant.
If you opt for a chemo port, speak with a nurse about tips to sleep better and reach out to others, perhaps in a cancer support group, to pick up strategies to make your sleeping and waking life with the chemo port as comfortable as possible.